The Coast Guard’s Can-Do Spirit and Desperate Needs

“Semper Paratus” – Always Ready – is the U.S. Coast Guard’s proud motto.

The Coast Guard for years has projected a can-do attitude, willing to take on ever-greater responsibilities that the Congress and the American public have asked it to do, despite measly appropriations that lawmakers have handed out.

There’s only so long that anyone can be asked to do more and more with less and less, and now it appears that the Coast Guard’s most senior officers are beginning to worry that the service’s Paratus may not be as Semper as they would wish.

Tuesday’s budget hearing before the agency’s House oversight committee was an illustration. The Obama administration is requesting $10.3 billion for the Coast Guard for fiscal 2012, which is 1 percent less than it has in 2011.

In many ways it’s a micro example of what federal agencies are facing when the government is trying to heal a trillion-dollar deficit. The difference is that the Coast Guard is the front line for protecting the country from everything on the water from illegal fishing to oil spills to terrorists.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, wondered if the Coast Guard’s 2012 budget was “taking a small bite this year in hopes you’re going to get larger bites in ensuing years? Do you have sufficient funds to ensure the Coast Guard is able to implement the measures that we asked you?” Larsen asked Commandant Robert J. Papp.

“We make judgments on a day-to-day basis to apply those resources against the highest need,” Papp replied. He said relief for victims of the earthquake in Haiti jumped to the top of the agency’s priority list last year, but missions to intercept illegal immigrants or drug shipments may have suffered “perhaps a little degradation.” Footnote: the first U.S. ships to arrive at Port-au-Prince were two Coast Guard cutters.

The 2012 budget asks for $1.4 billion to replace the Coast Guard’s aging vessels and aircraft, including $615 million to complete the fifth National Security Cutter, the backbone of its modernized fleet. Papp said he had recently visited one of the agency’s West Coat bases where one of the NSCs was tied up alongside a pair of the 40-plus year old cutters it was designed to replace.

“I’m continually reminded how desperately we need the new ships,” Papp told the committee. “It’s the desperate situation we find ourselves in to try and keep those things running.

“We are getting there as quickly as we can, but there are tough decisions to be made when we’re confronted with the budget constraints that the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security have,” Papp said.

“I noticed you used ‘desperate’ twice in your response,” Larsen said.

-- Contact R.G. Edmonson at bedmonson@joc.com.

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